Washington’s Abortive Scientific Renaissance

The new administration was expected to usher in a new era of scientific learning infusing government policy. It hasn't exactly worked out that way.

Barack Obama promised two years ago to usher in a new age of scientific reason in government policy. Scientists cheered the end of the Bush era, during which critics — including dozens of Nobel laureates — feared that government research was contorted to fit policy positions rather than used to enlighten them. Obama, once elected, went on to mention science in his inaugural address, using a phrase that became a rallying cry for scientists both inside and outside of government.

"I was pretty optimistic when Obama was going to 'restore science to its rightful place' and all the rest," said Chris Mooney, the author of Unscientific America and The Republican War on Science. During the 2008 election, he helped organize a cyber debate between Obama and John McCain on some of the most nuanced scientific issues of the day: biosecurity, climate change, genetics research and stem cells.

"I did not feel then," Mooney said, thinking back on the last election, "the sense that it would derail this quickly, this badly."

He wasn't so much talking about unfulfilled vows on the part of the new administration. He was thinking of the pushback from without, at Tea Party rallies, in the Virginia attorney general's investigation of a university climate researcher, in the surprising uproar against the "climategate" scandal. One recent New York Times/CBS News poll ("Climate Change Doubt is Tea Party Article of Faith") found that just 14 percent  of Tea Party supporters believe global warming is "an environmental problem that is having an effect now."

And that group is poised next week to usher into Washington a class of elected officials who at least outwardly share the same scientific skepticism, potentially upending Obama's promised renaissance less than two years in the making.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

A bitter New York Times editorial ("In Climate Denial, Again") concluded that with one exception, no Republican running for Senate next week accepts the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by man. (The left-leaning Center for American Progress has circulated similar numbers, although Mooney cautioned against accounting that may lump Republicans opposed to climate legislation on economic grounds with out-right climate deniers.)

As the National Journal assessed earlier this month: "The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones."

America's conservative ranks have not always been so monolithic. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham previously attempted (at great political cost back home) to lead bipartisan negotiations on an energy bill. Delaware Rep. Mike Castle — defeated in a senate primary by Tea Party hero Christine O'Donnell — voted for the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House of Representatives last year.

The momentum away from bipartisan climate agreement is puzzling because it flouts the linear trajectory that scientific findings typically take from laboratory to public arena. Generally, scientists conclude that the Earth is round, or the ozone is damaged, or that lead can poison, and the rest of us eventually come around to the idea, too.

"I used to believe that," Mooney said of the pattern. "But I totally don't believe that any more. I think there's no clear relationship between an increase in scientific knowledge and increasing public acceptance, if the issue is controversial. They can completely go in the opposite direction, and in fact climate change is a great example. We need to give up on the idea that truth finally triumphs because science figures something out. It triumphs within science, but that's very different from having it triumph within society."

So what will happen when a Congress newly stacked with scientific skeptics clashes next year with an executive branch staffed by Nobel-winning scientists like John Holdren and Steven Chu?

Mooney could give no answer. But he predicts that the ensuing scene, a bottom-up "war on science" driven by grassroots conservative anger, will look different from the top-down "war on science" that existed during the Bush administration. Then, the political meddling was largely a public relations push to align the government's scientific output with the president's position on climate action (or his supporters' position on contraception or stem cell research).

This time, Mooney said, scientific skeptics are not trying to control the administration's message, but to derail an administration's goal. Instead of quietly rewritten climate reports, we may get theatrical congressional hearings investigating scientific research.

"It's getting to the point where it's important to do some pretty fundamental rethinking of how it is that we promote a reasonable society," Mooney said.

Why is it that public acceptance doesn't follow scientific consensus? Why do some people cling to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence? These are questions not for atmospheric scientists, but psychologists and sociologists (and they're questions that apply well beyond climate change).

"Basically," Mooney concluded, "we're all in a huge state of introspection about what the hell didn't work."